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How Do Leaders Motivate Employees?

Why Can’t You Motivate Employees?

One of the biggest leadership challenges is learning how to motivate employees.  Motivated employees generally work harder with greater resolve to do a good job.  Some employees always seem to be motivated while always lack motivation.  They lack desire to do anything more than the bare minimum for one reason or another.  All their reasons, however, are just excuses because they lack motivation.

Why Can't You Motivate Employees?

In the leadership world, there are many theories about motivation.  There is also constant discussion about what it takes to motivate employees and why you can or can’t motivate employees.

So what exactly is motivation?

Motivation is the process of arousing and sustaining goal-directed behavior.

As a leader, it is sometimes possible to motivate employees through creating incentives for good work because some people are motivated by outside sources.  There are, however, others that are motivated from within.

Theories to Motivate Employees

Internal Motivation Theories – These theories of motivation give primary consideration to variables within the individual that give rise to motivation and behavior.  These theories focus on the needs of the individual.

Process Motivation Theories – These theories of motivation emphasize the nature of the interaction between the individual and the environment.

External Motivation Theories – These theories of motivation focus on the elements in the environment.

As a leader, it is important that you learn what it takes to motivate employees.  Even though there are a number of motivation theories, what you do to motivate employees has an impact on those you lead.  What you do to motivate employees will either motivate or demotivate those you lead.

A Story of Motivation

I heard an motivation experience recently that impacted me.  A friend of mine, we’ll call John, that is a great leader was assigned to be the leader over a person, we’ll call Jason, that was inherently demotivated.  He was in and out of trouble because of his performance.  Jason had a reputation of being lazy, taking extra long breaks, and only doing the bear minimum to avoid getting fired.  He got into a pattern of a poor performance review and then a good one, then a poor one, etc.  He continued with this pattern for many years.

In order to fully understand the employee, you must understand his background.  Jason was an employee that was very good and experienced at what he did.  He had also done his same job for many years and didn’t have any career advancement goals.  Jason found that at times he got very bored because he did the same thing all the time.

When John took over as Jason’s leader, John knew Jason’s reputation and background.  John had concerns about being Jason’s leader.  John wanted to be a great leader by helping Jason succeed.  Shortly after becoming the leader, John got a special project.  The special project involved thinking outside the normal routine of projects.  John decided to assign the new project to Jason.

Shortly after Jason began his new project, John, as well as the management team, saw an interesting phenomena.  Jason all of a sudden had a new desire to work.  He was on top of his work all the time, and he worked hard.  He also stopped taking long breaks and was always on time.  He even stayed late when needed without requesting overtime pay.

Well, the special project lasted two years and during the entire project Jason was a golden employee.  Once the project was over, however, he reverted back to his old ways.  He was then the same old employee that he had always been.  Ultimately, the change in environment and project type gave Jason a new-found motivation to do his job.

As a leader, there are only a limited number of things you can do to help people be motivated.  The book 180 Ways To Walk The Motivation Talk gives a number of ways to help people be motivated.  It also gives great examples of things you can do as a leader to motivate employees.

What have you done to motivate employees?  How are they staying motivated based on your leadership approach?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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  • I find that each person I lead is motivated by different things at different times. It is finding a way to tap into that which works best for me.

  • You make a very good point. It is quite a challenge to get everyone on the same page at the same time. When you are able to do that, you are able to realize true success.

  • Thomas Beer

    Check against the strategy (strategic fit), provide the environment for people to thrive personally and professionally, clarify the mission, prvide boundaries (tactical flexibility, operational reliability) provide the tools, avoid your own de-motivating behaviors, and get out of the way. Check back to avoid bunny trails or strategic misalignment and push toward the goal.

  • Welcome Thomas,

    I really like your approach. Those are some great ideas for motivating people. I especially like that you said you should set up the right environment and then get out of the way. As a leader, if you are not careful you can try to help people so much that you end up hurting them rather than helping. Thanks for your great comment!

  • Joe

    Interesting story. Yet I don’t think we can nip this one in the bag and call it a day. Sure, if you look at the short term, Jason was motivated to complete his project demonstrating to his critics that he is in fact a very capable employee. However, Jason in the end reverted to his old ways as soon as the two year project was finished. The question that needs to be asked is, “how can John implement the three theories, mentioned, to KEEP Jason motivated all the time?”

    • Joe,

      You bring up a very important point. As a leader it is very easy to implement programs or activities that will help someone to be motivated for a day, week, or even a month, but to get someone to consistently change their way of thinking is a unique challenge in and of itself. It is important to address the root cause of the demotivation rather than just treat the symptoms of low production. To do that, you must help people identify what does and doesn’t motivate people so that they can have their own internal motivation.

  • Anett Kuykendall

    Brandon, thx for sharing… I believe that the most effective way to be a good leader is to transport WHY WE are doing what we are doing and showing real interest on the people we are working with.

    • Welcome Annett!

      Thank you for reading my post and taking the time to share your thoughts! What you said is very true. When people understand why we are doing what we are doing, they are much more likely to feel a sense of ownership and jump in on the work. If they don’t feel that, they are demotivated much easier.

  • I have a similar experience to relate. I once asked a downcast gardener at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia what he liked most about his work. He replied: “Going home from it.” When asked what he disliked most about his work he replied: “Coming to it.” All he did each day was to mow lawns and was clearly unmotivated. We changed his role to focus solely on one area in which he was responsible for all garden work. Within three months he had the most attractive area within the University grounds and he was always cheerful and proudly willing to show people his achievements. Intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Intrinsic in that we showed interest in him by asking him about his work and then praised him for his new achievements. Extrinsic because we provided him with the tools and resources he needed. Of the two approaches intrinsic is the most effective as it usually non-discretionary and inexpensive. Good leaders are aware of the need to know their people as they appreciate the importance of developing good relationships and trust within their teams.

  • Welcome Peter!

    Thank you for sharing your experience with motivation. It is very interesting how someone can struggle in one role and thrives in another just because of the environment and its effect on motivation. This is not, however, an uncommon occurrence. Situations like this happen everyday in one form or another. With this knowledge, leaders can create an environment that is conducive to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

  • What motivates Jack may be very different from what motivates Jill, Harry or Jake, so it is important for a leader to know their team and what motivates each member. Developing an incentive program provides a platform to inspire employees to work harder and improve their performance rating versus their co-workers (and a little competition among employees can improve performance and increase productivity).

    • Boland,

      I completely agree with you that nobody is the same when it comes to motivation. Everyone gets their motivation from different sources. Some people are motivated from goals, while others are motivated by fear. There are also many other forces that drive motivation.

      In the second part of your comment, you mentioned that you could set up a competition and do an incentive program for the winners. I think this could work in some settings, but there are some real dangers that come with competition. Competition can bring with it less teamwork, gaming of the system, ill advised shortcuts, etc. Competition can also bring frustration and discouragement if everyone in not on a perfectly even playing field (e.g. one sales team has a very wealthy area that buys a lot while the other team has the poor area of town). If the competition is not set up right, it could demotivate rather than motivate people.

      I am a very competitive person and I like to win so I like competition, but to have a successful competition you need to set the rules from the very beginning and make sure they are strictly followed. No one likes to see someone win if they won based on changing standards. There are many other points to consider when deciding whether or not to have a competition that I can maybe discuss in a future blog post.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and bringing up great points!

  • If you want to motivate an employee, express unconditional positive regard and empathy toward him/her so that you can understand the reasons they want to change, where their motivation comes from. It involves capitalizing on and enhancing their motivation for change.

    In order to increase motivation, I identify those moments when an employee is ready for change as indicated by self-motivational statements or “change talk”. Once I hear these statements from an employee, I reduce her/his resistance and identify discrepancies between his/her goals, values, self-image, and current behavior. As you can see below, I have contrasted counter-motivational statements with change talk. Fill in the blank with the behavioral change that is being considered.
    Counter-motivational Statements:
     “I don’t have a problem with _________.”
     “When I _______, I’m more productive/relaxed/creative.”
     “I can ___________ without any problems.”
     “I’m not the one with the problem.”
     “There’s no way I’m going to stop __________.”
     “I’m not going to ___________.” “I’ve tried to ___________ (desired change), and I just can’t do it.”
     “I have so much else going on right now that I can’t _____.”
     “We’re so under-staffed right now that I can’t _____.”
    Change Talk:
     “I guess this has been affecting me more than I realized.”
     “Sometimes, when I ____________, I just can’t think, concentrate, or work efficiently.”
     “I guess I wonder if my ____ (undesirable behavior) has been _________.” (negative consequences of undesired behavior)
     “I feel terrible about how my _______ has hurt __________ (fam/co-workers/employer).”
     “I don’t know what to do, but something has to change.”
     “I think I could ______________ if I decided to.”
     “If I really put my mind to something, I can do it.”

    So how can leaders evoke “Change Talk” in your employees? Here are a few ideas:

    1. Ask Mostly Open-Ended Questions but Some Closed Ended Questions, Too (just be sure the questions reveal change talk): For example, “How much are you ready to look at your ____?” How much are you willing to stop _____?” or “It sounds like you’re ready to _____. Do you think you can?”

    2. Do a Decisional Balance Sheet: Partition a sheet of paper into four quadrants. First ask the person to list the good things about remaining the same, doing the same (place them in the upper left corner). Ask her to list the not-so-good things about remaining the same, doing the same (place them in the upper right corner). Next, ask the person to list the good things about changing and doing something different (place them in the lower left corner). Then ask him to list the not-so-good things about changing and doing something different (place them in the lower right corner). Help the person weigh the pro’s and cons. Refer to the four lists and ask the person, “What do you make of this?” Allow her to draw her own conclusions.

    3. Ask For Elaboration: When change talk emerges, ask for more detail. For example, “In what ways have you thought of changing…?” or, “How has your ______ hurt your team/employer/family?”

    4. Ask For Examples: When change talk emerges, ask for specific examples. For instance, “When was the last time you overcame the urge to micro-manage and delegated effectively? Give me an example. What else?”

    5. Look Back: Ask about a time before the current problem emerged. How were things better, different? What specifically did the person do differently that made her successful?

    6. Look Forward: Ask what may happen if things continue as they are. Use the “Miracle Question”: “If you had a magic wand and with a wave of that wand, everything was exactly the way you wanted it, what would be different? How would you like your work/life to be?”

    7. Explore Goals & Values: Ask what the person’s goals and values are. What does s/he want in life? How does the problem behavior fit in with that person’s goals or values? Does it help realize a goal or value, or does it interfere with it? Is there consistency or does the behavior conflict with the person’s values or goals?

    This is a great way of creating an accepting and non-judgmental working alliance and developing discrepancies between the employee’s current situation and her ideal future. It helps you get to the point where the employee begins to express change goals and methods he may use to achieve them.
    If you’re interested in learning more about Motivational Interviewing, I’ll be presenting this very same material at the end of the month at the Green Bay, WI Radisson Hotel & Conference Center.
    Barbara Jordan

    • Welcome Coach Barbara Jordan,

      Thank you for sharing such valuable information. I really like all that you explained. You make many great points. As a leader, you really aren’t going to change those you lead because they need to change themselves. You guide people to change by asking the right questions to get to the bottom of their concerns. From there, you can help to overcome them.

      Thank you for sharing such valuable information!

  • Mary Lippitt

    Categorizing motivation sources/interactions offers wonderful insight. I would add another factor: interaction with immediate supervisor. Most employees who quit cite these interactions as key to their decision. While it could be about personal chemistry, I find that it is frequently about the amount of control, decision authority, and sense of contribution. An employee’s sense of having “power” is key in these interactions.

    • Welcome Mary,

      That is a very good point. I recently heard a statement that “good employees don’t leave great companies, they leave bad supervisors.” The relationship that one has with their supervisor IS their relationship with the company for good and bad. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Afzal Ahme

    Such kind of information and experience sharing is a great contribution for all who are engaged in motivation process. Motivating employees is a complex and challenging task and performance of employees or performance of the organizations is mostly depends upon this important fact. Motivation is a prerequisite for result oriented working. Thanks and keep it up for all of us.

    • Welcome Afzal,

      I agree with you. Motivation is one major factor that separates good companies and employees from every other company in the world. A good company facilitates motivation so that its employees can work to their highest potential. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • When people are in the right role, doing the job they enjoy doing, utilizing their best skills, in a cultivating environment…the motivation is there. It is when any one of these things is amiss that motivation wanes.

    • Welcome Kim!

      You make a great point. Each of those four points is very important. The challenge as a leader is creating the environment that allows people to have each of those four points met for them. Thank you for sharing your valuable insight.

  • Chris

    Brandon – Money motivates at the coal face, bottom line.

    Kim – I agree, its rare to have that combo but I agree, right person for the right job, not because their face fits.

    • Welcome Chris!

      I agree with you that money is a strong motivator, but it isn’t the only motivator. I say that because I have seen people that got paid huge sums of money but worked in horrible conditions. The conditions were so bad that they quit what they were doing to take a lower paying job because they wanted out. I have also see people that worked so many hours for their huge paycheck that they didn’t have a life or time for their family. Ultimately, their family was more important than the millions they would get if they stayed at their job so they chose their family.

      People can only work so hard for so long before they need out, even if they get a huge paycheck. Money is a huge motivator, but not the only motivator.

      Thank you for taking the time to read this post and share your thoughts!